I Could Never Be So Lucky Again

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9780553584646: I Could Never Be So Lucky Again
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After Pearl Harbor, he led America’s flight to victory

General Doolittle is a giant of the twentieth century. He did it all.

As a stunt pilot, he thrilled the world with his aerial acrobatics. As a scientist, he pioneered the development of modern aviation technology.

During World War II, he served his country as a fearless and innovative air warrior, organizing and leading the devastating raid against Japan immortalized in the film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.

Now, for the first time, here is his life story — modest, revealing, and candid as only Doolittle himself can tell it.

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About the Author:

James Doolittle (1896–1993) was a stunt pilot who thrilled the world with his aerial acrobatics, a scientist who pioneered the development of modern aviation technology, and a fearless and innovative air warrior who served his country during World War II.

Retired Air Force Colonel Carroll V. Glines is the author of 36 books and more than 700 magazine articles on aviation and military subjects. Three of his books are about the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Japan. He was also the co-author of General Jimmy Doolittle's autobiography entitled I Could Never Be So Lucky Again. He was formerly the editor of Air Cargo, Air Line Pilot, and Professional Pilot magazines, and is now the curator of the Doolittle Library at the University of Texas, Dallas, and historian for the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

April 18, 1942

The 16-ship Navy task force centered around the aircraft carriers Hornet and Enterprise had been steaming westward toward Japan all night. I had given my final briefing to the B-25 bomber crews on the Hornet the day before. Our job was to do what we could to put a crimp in the Japanese war effort with the 16 tons of bombs from our 16 B-25s. The bombs could do only a fraction of the damage the Japanese had inflicted on us at Pearl Harbor, but the primary purpose of the raid we were about to launch against the main island of Japan was psychological.

The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable. Their leaders had told them Japan could never be invaded. Proof of this was the fact that Japan had been saved from invasion during the fifteenth century when a massive Chinese fleet set sail to attack Japan and was destroyed by a monsoon. From then on, the Japanese people had firmly believed they were forever protected by a “divine wind” — the kamikaze. An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders.

There was a second, and equally important, psychological reason for this attack. America and its allies had suffered one defeat after another in the Pacific and southern Asia. Besides the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had taken Wake Island and Guam and had driven American and Filipino forces to surrender on Bataan. Only a small force of Americans was left holding out on the island of Corregidor. America had never seen darker days. Americans badly needed a morale boost. I hoped we could give them that by a retaliatory surprise attack against the enemy’s home islands launched from a carrier, precisely as the Japanese had done at Pearl Harbor. It would be the kind of touché the Japanese military would understand. An air strike would certainly be a blow to their national morale and, furthermore, should cause the Japanese to divert aircraft and equipment from offensive operations to the defense of the home islands.

The basic plan for the raid against Japan was simple. If the Navy task force could get us within 400 to 500 miles of the Japanese coast, the B-25 medium Army bombers aboard the Hornet would launch, with carefully trained crews, against the enemy’s largest cities. Although the carrier’s deck seemed too short to allow the takeoff of a loaded B-25 land-based Army bomber, I was confident it could be done. Two lightly loaded B-25s had made trial takeoffs the previous February from the Hornet off the Virginia coast before the carrier had joined the Pacific fleet. All of the pilots had practiced a number of short-field takeoffs at an auxiliary field near Eglin Field, Florida.

I would take off first so as to arrive over Tokyo at sunset. The other crews would leave the carrier at local sunset and head for their respective targets. I would drop four 50-pound incendiary bombs on a factory area in the center of Tokyo. The resulting fires in the highly inflammable structures in the area would light up the way for the succeeding planes and steer them toward their respective targets in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, Nagoya, and the Kobe-Osaka complex. The rest of the B-25s would be loaded with four 500-pound bombs each — two incendiaries and two demolition bombs. After launching the B-25s, the Navy task force was to retreat immediately and return to Hawaii.

We would not return to the Hornet. After bombing our targets, we were to escape to China. The planes would be turned over to the new Air Force units being formed in the China-Burma-India theater.

There were five crew members in each airplane — pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, and gunner. One crew had a physician aboard — Dr. (Lieutenant) Thomas R. White — who had volunteered and qualified as a gunner so he could go. This was a fortuitous choice, as it turned out, for four members of another crew.

The State Department had tried to get permission from the Soviets for us to land in Soviet territory for refueling. This flight would have been an easy 600 miles or so after bombing the Japanese targets. But permission was denied because the Soviets were neutral vis-à-vis Japan and did not want to have another Axis power at their back door invading their country from that direction.

Therefore, after dropping its bombs, each plane was to head generally southward along the Japanese coast, then westward to Chuchow, located about 70 miles inland and about 200 miles south of Shanghai. After refueling there, we were to proceed to Chungking, 800 miles farther inland. The greatest in-flight distance we would have to fly was 2,000 miles. With the fuel tank modifications we had made and extra gas in five-gallon cans, there was enough fuel on board to fly 2,400 miles, provided the crews used the long-range cruising techniques we had practiced.

Our planes had been positioned on the deck for takeoff the evening before. The mechanics had run up their engines and made last-minute adjustments. I wanted the crews to get a good night’s sleep, but few heeded the advice of an oldster who, at 45, was twice the age of most of them. Some of the officers played poker with the Navy pilots who had been unable to fly since leaving California because our planes took up all the space on the deck. The Navy pilots and our crews wanted to recoup their individual losses before we left.

The Enterprise launched scout planes at daybreak for 200-mile searches, and fighters were sent up as cover for the task force. The weather, which had been moderately rough during the night, worsened. There was a low overcast and visibility was limited. Frequent rain squalls swept over the ships, and the sea began to heave into 30-foot crests. Gusty winds tore off the tops of the waves and blew heavy spray across the ships, drenching the deck crews. At 6:00 A.M., a scout plane returned to the Enterprise and the pilot dropped a bean bag container on the deck with a message saying he had sighted a small enemy fishing vessel and believed he had been seen by the enemy.

Admiral William F. Halsey immediately ordered all ships to swing left to avoid detection. Had the enemy vessel seen the aircraft? No one knew. The question was answered about 7:30 A.M. when another patrol vessel was sighted from the Hornet only 20,000 yards away. A Japanese radio message was intercepted by the Hornet’s radio operator from close by. One of the scout planes then sighted another small vessel 12,000 yards away. A light could be seen bobbing in the rough sea. Halsey ordered the cruiser Nashville to sink it.

Unknown to us, the Japanese had stationed a line of radio-equipped picket boats about 650 nautical miles out from the coast to warn of the approach of American ships. I went to the bridge where Captain Marc A. Mitscher briefed me on what had happened. “It looks like you’re going to have to be on your way soon,” he said. “They know we’re here.” I shook hands with Mitscher and rushed to my cabin to pack, spreading the word as I went.

Some of the B-25 crews had finished breakfast and were lounging in their cabins; others were shaving and getting ready to eat; several may have still been dozing. A few had packed their bags, but I think many were completely surprised because they thought they would not be taking off until late afternoon.

At 8:00 A.M., Admiral Halsey flashed a message to the Hornet: LAUNCH PLANES X TO COL DOOLITTLE AND GALLANT COMMAND GOOD LUCK AND GOD BLESS YOU.

The ear-shattering klaxon horn sounded and a booming voice ordered: “Now hear this! Now hear this! Army pilots, man your planes!”

The weather had steadily continued to worsen. The Hornet plunged into mountainous waves that sent water cascading down the deck. Rain pelted us as we ran toward our aircraft. It was not an ideal day for a mission like this one.

The well-disciplined Navy crews and our enlisted men, some of whom had slept on deck near their planes, knew what to do. Slipping and sliding on the wet deck, they ripped off engine and gun turret covers and stuffed them inside the rear hatches. Fuel tanks were topped. The mechanics pulled the props through. Cans of gasoline were filled and handed up to the gunners through the rear hatches. Ropes were unfastened and wheel chocks pu11ed away so the Navy deck handlers could maneuver the B-25s into takeoff position.

Meanwhile, the Hornet picked up speed as best it could in the rough sea and turned into the wind. The 20-knot speed of the carrier and the 30-knot wind blowing directly down the deck meant that we should be airborne safely and quickly. This ability of an aircraft carrier to turn its “airfield” into the wind is a distinct advantage. Rarely do Navy pilots have to worry about cross-wind takeoffs and landings. However, a rough sea such as the one in front of us could ruin a pilot’s day if he ignored the signals of the deck officer and tried a takeoff when the bow of the ship was heading into the waves. It was like riding a seesaw that plunged deep into the water each time the bow dipped downward.

Lieutenant Henry L. “Hank” Miller, the naval officer assigned to us at Eglin Field, Florida, to teach us how to take off in minimum distances, said good-bye to each crew. He told us to watch a blackboard he would be holding up near the ship’s “island” to give us last-minute instructions and the carrier’s heading so our navigators could compare our planes’ compasses with the ship’s heading and set their directional gyros. The navigators were very concerned about our magnetic compasses. After more than two weeks on the carrier, they would be way off calibration, especially on those planes that were tied down close to the carrier’s metal structure. With an overcast sky, the navigators wouldn’t be able to take shots of the sun or stars with their sextants. It would be dead reckoning all the way to the Japanese coast. A check on the accuracy of the compasses was essential.

My crew emerged quickly from their quarters below decks. Sergeant Paul J. Leonard, our crew chief, was one of those skilled mechanics who knew instinctively what to do. Me already had his barracks bag and toolbox stowed in the rear and was helping the deck crews get our ship into takeoff position. In the air, he would be the top turret gunner. During our training at Eglin, he had proven he was a marksman with the twin .50s. Born in 1912, he had dropped out of high school in Roswell, New Mexico, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1931, at the start of the Depression. He was one of those rare individuals who applied himself and became one of the most outstanding mechanics with whom I ever served. Men like him were the backbone of the nation’s air service when war began and were highly regarded for their dedication and expertise. They set high standards for the enlisted men who served with them.

Sergeant Fred A. Braemer, of Seattle, Washington, was another “old-timer.” He had joined the infantry in 1935 and transferred to the Air Corps in 1939. He had completed both bombardier and navigator training but was serving on our crew as the bombardier.

Our copilot was Lieutenant Richard E. “Dick” Cole, from Dayton, Ohio, who had completed pilot training in July 1941. Dick was a quietly competent pilot who had attended Ohio University for two years before enlisting as a Flying Cadet. If anything happened to me, I was confident that he would take over the controls of the aircraft and the leadership of the crew without hesitation.

Lieutenant Henry A. “Hank” Potter, of Pierre, South Dakota, was our navigator. Like so many young men in those days, he had also completed two years of college, the minimum for entry into flying training, and had graduated from navigator school in 1941.

I was proud of my crew and all the other volunteers who were willing to lay their lives on the line for a risky mission that I could not tell them about until we were on the carrier. Every man had proven his competence during our training at Eglin. I felt completely comfortable and confident as our B-25 was placed in takeoff position and the wheels chocked.

I knew hundreds of eyes were watching me, especially those of the B-25 crews who were to follow. If I didn’t get off successfully, I’m sure, many thought they wouldn’t be able to make it either. But I knew they would try.

I started the engines, warmed them up, and checked the magnetos. When satisfied, I gave the thumbs-up sign to the deck launching officer holding the checkered flag. As the chocks were pulled, he looked toward the bow and began to wave the flag in circles as a signal for me to push the throttles forward to the stops. At the instant the deck was beginning an upward movement, he gave me the “go” signal and I released the brakes. The B-25 followed the two white guide lines painted on the deck and we were off with feet to spare as the deck reached its maximum pitch.

We left the Hornet at 8:20 A.M. ship time. The carrier’s position was about 824 statute miles from the center of Tokyo. Its position: latitude 35º43’N, longitude 153º25’E.

I signaled Dick for wheels up and as the plane gained flying speed, I leveled off and made a 360-degree turn to come over the carrier. This gave Hank Potter a chance to compare the magnetic heading of the carrier with our compass and align the axis of the carrier with the drift sight. The course of the Hornet was displayed in large figures from the gun turret near the island. Through the use of the airplane’s compass and directional gyro, we were able to set a fairly accurate course for Tokyo.

As we headed toward Japan at low altitude, I thought about how easy the takeoff had been. If everyone followed instructions, they should have no trouble. A night takeoff would have been easy and practicable. That was something I wanted to report to Washington when I got home. It might be useful for future operations.

I began to wonder about the arrangements in China. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, China’s ruler, had not wanted us to land in China after bombing Japan for fear of extensive retaliation against his people by the Japanese, who had occupied China’s coastal areas and Manchuria for several years. The Chinese had been slaughtered by the thousands whenever marauding Japanese troops invaded an area. American military personnel in China reported that leaks of classified information were common; we were told that secrecy was almost impossible to maintain in Chiang’s headquarters. As a result, it was decided in Washington that he would not be informed of our plans until we were at sea and the mission could not be recalled.

As we droned on at about 200 feet above the water, Dick Cole and I took turns at the controls. We were all concerned about gas consumption, and everyone on the flight deck was continually checking the gauges against our estimates. A half hour after takeoff we were joined by the second B-25 to depart, which flew a loose formation with us. It was piloted by Lieutenant Travis Hoover. About an hour later, we sighted a camouflaged Japanese ship that we thought might be a light cruiser. About two hours out we flew directly under an enemy flying boat that just loomed at us suddenly out of the mist. We don’t think they saw us. It was heading directly toward the task force.

The weather improved gradually as we got closer to Japan. We changed course briefly several times to avoid various civil and naval-surface craft until we made landfall north of Inubo Shima, about 80 miles north of Tokyo. This was the first time Hank Potter was able to get an accurate fix on our position. Trav Hoover promptly turned of...

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